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    PloughCast 72: Tyranny, Inc.

    By Sohrab Ahmari, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    November 8, 2023
    • Firman Miller

      Good Morning! Time for voicing some concerns again after reading Common Economics. If we read the teaching in the Bible that Jesus taught relating directly to masters and servants (employers and employees) then the function of labor unions are unscriptural. Please study these scriptural teachings before spewing e-mails. I agree society is riven by classifications but this is sin. Jesus teaches us very clearly in the gospels that this is SIN. If we are a part of the Kingdom of God we cannot have social classification's. Do you understand that being or becoming "rights minded" is selfish evil and devilish. It is worshiping the idol of self and classifying yourself as something you are not. I know the Catholic way is top down control oriented thinking and that is why they support labor unions. But the true Kingdom of God is about voluntarily submitting to the will of God and being disciples of Jesus teachings and examples. Please study the Bible on the teachings for masters and servants and publish the truth instead of a group of self-classified peoples opinion. Your response is accepted. Regards, An Amish brother in Christ.

    About This Episode

    The hosts speak with Sohrab Ahmari about how private power crushed American liberty.

    Sohrab’s new book, Tyranny, Inc., is a thoroughly reported look at the way that private economic power, especially the conditions of employment, has taken away workers’ abilities to have agency over their own lives. How did we get here, and what can we do about it? Sohrab looks at the history of the last several hundred years, from the enclosure movement on, and looks as well at many stories of contemporary economic tyranny.

    They discuss the tendency of conservative genealogies of social ills to focus on ideas to the exclusion of material forces, and discuss as well the connections between this book, Sohrab’s earlier work on liberalism, and his Catholic faith.

    They end in discussing the conflict between neoliberalism and the Christian tradition, and Susannah recites a poem about a goose.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts:

    Unhappy events abroad have retaught us two simple truths about the liberty of a democratic people. The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself.

    The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way to sustain an acceptable standard of living. Both lessons hit home.

    It has been well said that the freest government, if it could exist, would not be long acceptable if the tendency of the laws were to create a rapid accumulation of property in a few hands and to render the great mass of the population dependent and penniless. Today, many Americans ask the uneasy question, is the vociferation that our liberties are in danger justified by the facts?

    Today’s answer on the part of average men and women in every section of the country is far more accurate than it would have been in 1929, for the very simple reason that during the past nine years, we have been doing a lot of common sense thinking. Their answer is that if there is that danger, it comes from that concentrated private economic power which is struggling so hard to master our democratic government. It will not come as some, by no means all, of the possessors of that private power would make the people believe, from our democratic government itself.

    That was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, April 29, 1938, the Message to Congress on Curbing Monopolies. We are very pleased today to welcome repeat pod offender, Sohrab Ahmari. Sohrab, thank you for being with us to talk about your latest book, Tyranny, Inc. So, I got to ask you, was FDR right?

    Sohrab Ahmari: He was dead on, Susannah. And thank you for having me. In fact, I could have used that as an epigraph for my book. As it happens, I used James chapter 5 verse 4 about the unjust employers who don’t pay their workers and a quote from a nineteenth-century populist/progressive figure, Henry Demarest Lloyd, who said, “Our barbarians come from above.” But I well could have used that excerpt from that speech, which is absolutely apt for a book that’s fundamentally about the ways that private concentrations of power, if left unchecked, undo our highest aspirations as a political community to a small D democracy, to justice, fairness, et cetera. That’s the thesis of this book, and I give an account of it through both reporting and then long form historical argument, that private power, if left unchecked, threatens political democracy.”

    It creates a society that is shot through with coercion, but which ordinary people can’t resist that coercion precisely because it treats it as a private matter and, therefore, not subject to our collective political determination.

    Peter Mommsen: And so, in your book, Sohrab, which I immensely enjoyed reading and I’m looking forward to what kind of reactions it gets when it lands. To be clear, the “tyranny” of the title, Tyranny, Inc., you’re focusing particularly on private coercion. Is that right?

    Sohrab Ahmari: Yes. So there have been a number of books recently about the phenomenon known as “woke capital.” And I go out of my way to say that this is not one more right-wing tirade against woke capital. In other words, the fundamental problem with the kind of coercion, privatized coercion that is the subject of this book is not the ideological color that it takes, the fact that the company that pays you abysmal wages or that abuses its market power to erode goods that are important for our common good, the fact that it’s all masked in a kind of woke regalia or so external messaging that’s about LGBTQ rights and Black Lives Matter and so forth, that that’s not the fundamental problem.

    And in fact, the critiques that are just focused on the sort of cultural aspect are wittingly or otherwise helping uphold the current system. The fundamental problem is just vast disparities in power and vast disparities in the distribution of social income that creates a society where corporations can push us around culturally or ideologically, whatever the ideology may be, whether it’s right wing, left wing, whatever. It’s sort of an epiphenomenon. It’s a secondary knock-on effect.

    The fundamental phenomenon, the one that I hope to focus the reader’s attention on is just the sheer ability of a company typically in the employment relationship, but not exclusively to coerce us, and that the ways that coercion is upheld by our system, including through our government just refusing to act, refusing to regulate something because the premise is that this is a private zone. And therefore, we can’t intervene.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. I mean it links very tightly with some of the things that you had been talking about probably about three years or so ago in the sense that although it’s sort of platform independent of left and right here or it can sort of use either side of the culture war as the thing that it’s pushing, it is very linked to the idea of liberalism in the classical sense because there’s a way that this kind of power disguises itself by saying, “Well, you chose to click those terms of service. You chose to enter into this employee contract,” which I mean the classic … I don’t know if it was Dickens or someone like Dickens, but he said, “Both a rich man and a poor man are equally free to live under a bridge.” And that kind of disguised coercion behind the concept of liberty in this very nineteenth-century liberal sense is what it seems to me you’re really focusing with pretty laser-like precision on. Is that a fair read?

    Sohrab Ahmari: Absolutely. And so, to try to make it concrete, I mean in the nineteenth century as you know, the doctrine that this way of thinking came to be named under was called liberty of contract. And the idea is that especially in the employment context, employer and employee meet each other with symmetrical power because each can walk away from the transaction.

    And therefore, the transaction that they strike, its terms are generally speaking optimal and not to be interfered with by government. And this idea arose especially in a sort of eighteenth-century context when you had … it was an age of what what’s called masterless men, right? There were artisans, yeoman farmers, merchants, mechanics, what they were called mechanics and engineers. And these men and women would meet each other in the marketplace at arm’s length. They would transact. I give you my surplus apple. You give me your surplus honey. And we each walk away. And that’s that.

    And so, in a way that doctrine of liberty of contract did make some sense in that context. And it was formulated generally speaking by these free market laissez-faire theorists in that context. But then, the industrial revolution happened. And it completely changed the pattern of how these transactions happened.

    Yes, employer and employee initially met each other at arm’s length. But once the employee signed on the dotted line, he came under the near total power of the employer who could dictate his use of his time and his use of his body for most of his waking life. And because of the nature of industrial organization, the ordinary worker couldn’t walk away from his or her job the same way that the masterless men of old could because there were many, many more workers that were all proletarianized. And this still is basically the condition that prevails.

    Most people are dependent for their basic subsistence on only being able to sell their wages. It’s only a relatively narrow slice of society that has the financial and productive assets that allows them to employ others, and that it’s they who can set the terms. For most other people, it’s not the case.

    And so, just very briefly, I know that was a long-winded answer, but to give a concrete example of how this nineteenth-century idea of liberty of contract, which was supposed to have been swept away in some ways by the new New Deal. The New Deal was a recognition that that’s not how the real economy works. We’ve mentioned FDR at the opening, Susannah.

    We can talk about, for example, the abuse of commercial arbitration in the American workplace. Commercial arbitration is very, very old. Arbitration in general goes back to medieval times. It was the idea that instead of litigating their disputes, parties that were in dispute would have their disputes resolved by some other authority than the courts.

    It was typically the church. So people would have land disputes, feuds between families that were bound by marriage or what have you. And then, on Law Day, they would sue each other. But there was this alternative called Love Day when they would meet each other and the church would quickly sort of mediate between their conflicts. This is a very old idea.

    In the American context, after a while, merchants thought it would be good to bring arbitration so that they weren’t so bogged down in litigation, and that’s how we got the Federal Arbitration Act in 1925. The people who designed the law wanted to design a law that allows merchants of relatively equal bargaining power, they repeatedly said this, “To quickly resolve their conflicts without the bloody methods of court systems with all the time and expense it takes to litigate something.”

    It was never meant to apply to the employment relationship. Only beginning of the 1980s, primarily led by conservative majorities on the Supreme Court through today, the arbitration agreement has come to become mandatory in the employment context such that, for example, in the sort of definitive case which was handed down by Chief Justice Gorsuch just in 2018, an employee of the accounting giant, Ernst & Young, sued Ernst & Young for underpayment of wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act. That’s the federal law that gives you the minimum wage and under California labor law.

    The amount that he wanted to recover would’ve added up to $4,000. In order to arbitrate his dispute, which was required in his employment contract, he would’ve had to spend $200,000. Ernst & Young never challenged that fact. But the Supreme Court held nevertheless that he had basically freely agreed to arbitrate his disputes and, therefore, couldn’t get out of individual arbitration and couldn’t use class action or even class arbitration. He has to present his complaint singly.

    The problem with that is, of course, it’s irrational. There’s no way for him to vindicate rights that he, otherwise, has under federal labor laws unless he’s allowed to band together with other similarly situated employees.

    But our Supreme Court said, “No. You had liberty of contract.” The interesting thing is that when Morris, the plaintiff in this case, was first employed by Ernst & Young, arbitration wasn’t part of the contract. The way it happened was, one day, as in the middle of his career there, he received an email from the firm that said, “If you show up to work the next day, going forward, you agree to arbitrate your disputes in kind of privatized court rather than have the right to sue us in a regular ordinary court of law.”

    And the idea of free market liberty of contract in the nineteenth-century sense, which you mentioned Susannah, is basically that at that point, Morris was free to walk away from the deal. But in reality, no one does that. You show up to work the next day because you need a paycheck.

    And so, this is how this insidious way of pretending like there’s a symmetry between the two parties that therefore they can really optimally contract without state intervention to make sure it’s fair is still operative in our economy. We think that era is over. It’s not really. It’s the norm for most workers governing most issues in the workplace.

    Susannah Black Roberts: What’s exciting to me about your book is that so many books that we have both read a thousand of focus their genealogizing or historical understanding of how we got where we are specifically on ideas, in particular. This obviously started with Richard Weaver. So you basically end up blaming William of Ockham and the bad ideas that are behind what’s come to be our contemporary liberal or progressive or right liberal world.

    And you don’t ignore ideas, but this is a much more … I wouldn’t want to call it historical materialist, but a little bit historical materialist account. And you’re really paying attention to how people avoid starving to death. And that is an important aspect of history as well as off-brand monks being a little bit weird about Saint Thomas.

    It seems to me that looking at your, I guess, approach and set of interests over the last couple years, you did make a move from a more idealist to a more materialist in a good sense approach to understanding an analysis. Is that accurate? And what was that like?

    Sohrab Ahmari: Well, it’s a really bedeviling thing, and it’s something that honestly for about four to five years, I’ve been thinking if I had time in a different life to go to the … I don’t know. A graduate program that I find really attractive is Committee on Social Thought at Chicago or something. I would want to write about how do you create an epistemology that doesn’t, on the one hand, reduce every intellectual development to the underlying kind of contingent material and historical forces that are operative at a given conjuncture on the one hand, or on the other hand, to the go into the full flight into idealism in which ideas are just over there, and they’re either right or wrong. And if you pick the wrong ideas, then, you get the wrong historical, bad historical developments.

    I think the first one that I mentioned, of course, is the problem with historical materialism, which is why I’m not a historical materialist because then no moral claim can survive that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Right.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Any universal moral claim has to be historicized. People thought X, Y, Z was bad because it legitimated blah, blah blah, social structure, et cetera, et cetera.

    But if you go to the other extreme, which is honestly a lot of Catholic, at least American Catholic intellectual life, it’s that extreme idealism, which is like Ockham and a few others thought the wrong thing about whether or not you can make general statements about categories or whatever. And therefore, we ended up with the bad aspects of the Enlightenment. Therefore, the Reformation, therefore da, da, da, da, up to today, the bad things you don’t like. And both of them strike me as wrong.

    And so, I think at a theoretical level, there has to be some meaning of the two for me intellectually. And this book is an attempt to try to do that, which is to say, “Look, yes, there are historical developments that have brought us to the point that we are now.” But there have to be universal moral norms operative that tell you that there’s something wrong with how we’re operating our economy, for example.

    In other words, if I didn’t believe the sort of absolutes of the Christian faith of natural law, et cetera, I would have no metric by which to judge the material historical developments that I’m decrying in the book. What would I have to say? I’d say, why is it wrong for an employer to coerce his employee into arbitration like that, right?

    Susannah Black Roberts: You’d have to be like, “It’s not my preference.” It’s not my preference.

    Sohrab Ahmari: It’s not my preference. I think even hardcore Marxists are never as fully kind of materialist as they claim to be. They’re fired up by some moral wrongs that they wish to correct. And why is that? It’s because they … yeah. But it’s a really good question. It’s something I’m constantly grappling with.

    Peter Mommsen: It seems that one sort of commonality to what some of the different phenomena that you discussed in the book is the privatization of what really should be commons, and this distinction that you mentioned earlier between private and public being overly hard, that there’s this idea that as long as we’re publicly free, private oppression, private tyranny is OK.

    And just for our listeners, there’s chapters in this book not only on private arbitration, which we just were talking about, but also you talk about the role of private equity firms and their impact on employment, the privatization of first responders, which is a fascinating thing. I’m not familiar from where I live in the Hudson Valley. But apparently in rural America, that’s a big deal. You get a bill from your fire department. Local news, the disappearance of that and these news deserts that are developing where it’s basically impossible to talk about local abuses of power.

    And you talk about things like Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Is it kind of fair to see that as different ways in which what once used to be regarded as commons have been turned into private areas subject to the domination of those with the assets to control them?

    Sohrab Ahmari: Yeah. I mean there are several ways to tackle this. One is always kind of my favorite, which is the historical. And that’s the story that, for example, Karl Polanyi, this non-Marxist socialist economic historian, a strong Hungarian, but lived most of his life in Britain. The story that he tells about the enclosure controversy in England, which is contrary to the free market sort of laissez-faire story that is often told, which is that capitalism grew organically and people just sort of began trading with each other in cities like Florence or some cities in Amsterdam … in the Netherlands and so forth, in fact …

    Peter Mommsen: You have this very picturesque idea of people in Florence just sort of exchanging some sheep for your Michelangelo.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Yeah. Exactly.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And they’re all dressed really well, and it’s beautiful out and they’re in the agora kind of.

    Peter Mommsen: There’s really freaking-good wine.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Everyone’s very … it’s a great scene.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Well, you can’t blame economic liberals for painting this sort of romantic picture of their own origins. But the reality is that it was actually … the degree of privatization that was necessary for the market system to work, right? There were always markets. But what was novel about the early modern era is the rise of market society or the market system in which the market is this autonomous institution that exists separately from the other activities that we associated with our common life together, religion, the demands of the poor, et cetera, et cetera.

    This all gets kind of abstracted and there was this thing created called the market. In order for it to operate as autonomously as capitalists wished, everything else had to be reordered around that. And Polanyi tells the story of how painful bringing about that world was, right?

    It was used to be that peasant had this vast amount of land that was thought to be held in common where they could graze, but then enterprising noblemen came around who wanted to use this as their private land for commercial farming. And they sort of disrupted the entire way of life of the peasants who then came to form the base of sort of Victorian capitalism.

    They were ground down in those Dickensian factories that we know from literature. These were people who formerly at least their parents or grandparents had this much more decent way of life, and that was all brought about by state coercion. It wasn’t a natural development. It was through the brute force of the nobles driving people out and in closing land that used to be held in common. And then, parliament in England over time ratifying it. Interestingly, it was often the monarchy that stood with the peasants against these enterprising proto-capitalist nobles which it complicates the picture.

    But the point is that didn’t come about – there’s nothing natural about that. It was result of political choice, political coercion, which was legalized or written into law after the fact. And so, today, the same thing happens. A lot of the transactions that are the subject of this book, which I describe as private tyranny or private coercion, it doesn’t happen naturally.

    For it to happen, the state has to give it its own sanction so that certain goods that used to be thought as untouchable because they were part of the commons were treated as things that could be up for sale. That’s not a natural development. That’s a human institutional development, which that means we can reverse it too, by the way.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. I will just give a quick shout out for anybody who’s listening to this and would like to learn more about this story of the enclosure of the Commons, we have a great article about it in our new issue on money by Jack Bell. It’s called “Saving the Commons.” And in there, there’s this amazing factoid that I believe, over the course of the enclosures, one-fifth of the land in England went from being commonly held to forcibly privatized to the benefit of those with the power and the assets already.

    Today, one thing that jumped out at me from your book that I’ve been thinking about is time itself is a kind of commons. And the growth of just-in-time scheduling of workers outside of the traditional workday doesn’t seem quite as obvious as a form of enclosure as grabbing away the land where you used to have your goat.

    But it really is the same. You tell a pretty horrible story of a young mother who basically finds it impossible to take care of her newborn because her job can’t give her the hours when she’s meant to work in enough time to get childcare.

    Sohrab Ahmari: That’s a really good point, which I hadn’t even made the connection of time as a commons and a commons that’s regulated by various natural and liturgical calendars. Here’s the time to celebrate my wedding. Here’s the time for me to be with my newborn. Here’s the time for … et cetera, et cetera. It all becomes subject to capricious market determination in the case of just-in-time scheduling, which is – what is just-in-time scheduling? It’s the mode of organizing, especially in the service and retail economy where employers … sorry, employees have to be ever at the ready at the last minute, instead of having any sense of regularity about their upcoming week schedule.

    This is a new development. Workers tended to have more notice about, OK, I work Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but I have Tuesdays and Thursdays off. That’s when I spend time with my sick kid or with my ailing old grandparents, whatever you might have. It’s become ever more common.

    In fact, about a third of the Americans who work in restaurant and retail, which is a huge share of Americans, it’s twenty-five million Americans work there, a third of those people, they get less than a week’s notice about their upcoming schedule.

    Now, very obvious, I mean there’s studies for everything, but they should be common sense. These people suffer a lot because of that precarity. How do they suffer? Their children tend to have all sorts of worse outcomes in terms of development, in terms of behavior in school, getting into fights, academic outcomes.

    It’s bad that the workers themselves say that the precarious wages that come as a result of precarious scheduling, the wages aren’t even as bad in terms of in their mind as just the sheer fact of the precarity of scheduling.

    So why do we do this? We’ve always had a service industry. It’s a new development that they use algorithms to schedule people’s times this way. Well, it’s a way to shift more of the costs associated with doing business to workers.

    What do I mean by that? If you have a normal schedule for your workers, you assume that, “Look, there are going to be moments of low demand for my services.” And the employer and the employee will eat some of that cost in a relatively equal way. We share the burdens.

    But if you schedule things this way, last-minute, just-in-time scheduling, you offload all the costs associated with low demand onto workers. You’re dealing with the consequences that there might be low demand at a point. And that’s when I won’t call you or they use something called “clopening schedules” – opening and closing, “clopening.”

    What that means is that the workers only work like an hour and a half or two hours at the opening of the store. And then, there’s like a three-hour break in the middle. And then, they work two hours at the end when it’s closing time because that’s when it’s busy. So all the negative effects that are associated with potential low demand get offloaded onto the worker and his or her family members.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So this is kind of the scheduling version of what are called negative externalities. So you might think of an oil company who just, for example, that you might call Exxon who just, for example, might spend one hundred years dumping its miscellaneous sludge into Raritan Bay in New Jersey because it’s cheaper than dealing with it without dumping it into these commons, these literal commons of the citizens of New Jersey who deserve consideration despite being from New Jersey. It’s negative externalities, but it’s kind of the time version of that. Is that accurate?

    Sohrab Ahmari: It absolutely is. And in a way now that Peter has expanded our definition of the commons, you think about the body of our common people, of us, our bodies as part of the commons that should have some sense of predictability of rest. This is stuff that typically people in the white-collar professions still take for granted, but people in the pink- and blue-collar professions increasingly can’t. So I mean if you’ve read the book, it’s full of frustration for my own side as it were, which is namely a certain kind of conservative Christian who decries various social phenomena like people aren’t getting married, people aren’t having children, why do people seem so filled with [inaudible] and aren’t civically engaged, aren’t going to churches, et cetera.

    And those are all really legitimate concerns to have. But some, not all, some conservative Christians have historically had this tendency to never connect those cultural phenomena that they rightly decry to the potential material causes to the way we organize our political economy, so that if you do that to someone’s soul and body, you sort of demand that they work with no sense of predictability about their schedule only two hours at the opening, two hours at the end, which means their wages are precarious as well.

    All that does to their other relationships with their children, spouse, elderly, et cetera. And then wonder, “Well, why are they like this?”

    Peter Mommsen: Right. Why are marriage and birth rates going down, and why are people bowling alone, right?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Honestly, Sohrab, it really feels to me the work that you’re doing in this book is so similar, is most similar in a way to the kind of work that people like Leah Libresco Sargeant or Mary Harrington or Louise Perry are doing, looking at the relationship between the material reality of women’s bodies and the economic effects of things like the pill and the sexual revolution. Obviously decisions about sexuality are moral decisions, but by purely moralizing everything having to do with sex and not recognizing both the materiality of women’s bodies and the materiality of the economic and chemical things that we do to ourselves and each other, you’re kind of ignoring a huge part of reality, and it seems like you’re trying to do that in a weird way with economics more broadly. It just feels like a similar project to me.

    Sohrab Ahmari: I’m happy to be counted among the ranks of those women, many of whom I consider friends and allies in the fight. The only thing I would add is, in my case, in a way the problem is framed more simply. In other words, or rather the solution is to me not that complicated. We did have an economy in which working-class people got a fair shake. The social income was distributed a little bit more equitably.

    People got vacations. People got a sense of investment in their work, they got a say through unions, et cetera. And I’m talking about the period roughly between 1945 to whenever neoliberalism began, which is maybe the 1970s. Even ’73 is often a year that’s used for that.

    And so, there are certain things about the period which are specifically contingent to that time, and it would be foolish to try to reproduce every aspect of it. But some of the elements of that class consensus or class compromise are trans-historical. If you raise up workers’ countervailing power through labor unions or through minimum wage laws, then, the distribution of the social income will be a little bit more equitable.

    And by the way, this was a period also of extreme dynamism in the US economy. This was a period of mass manufacturing, the period of some of the most innovative companies that we now think about, innovations that were actually useful as opposed to weird apps that help you customize exactly what kind of porn you want, but real things that were useful. That was a great time for all of that. So I’m not saying I differ from the one that you named. In my case –

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s broader.

    Sohrab Ahmari: It’s broader, but also people might be surprised given my reputation or some of the other stuff that they’ve read, how humdrum in a way my solutions are. It’s like John Kenneth Galbraith, FDR, the New Deal, there’s a lot of wisdom there that we can apply to our age, again, taking into account economic conditions of change. You have to adjust for certain things.

    But for example, the idea of countervailing power, which we owe to Galbraith is not limited to the mid-century. It still applies. You can still help raise up countervailing power and so create a condition in which the power and income are distributed a little bit more equally and a lot of good flows from that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Just a little housekeeping: don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes! We’ll be back with the rest of Peter’s and my conversation with Sohrab after the break.

    Peter Mommsen: Could we just get a little more of a preview of what your proposed solution is, Sohrab? I mean you’ve sketched it. But what are the different components of it that you kind of go into in the book?

    Sohrab Ahmari: Sure. So a lot of the conditions we suffer from today are similar to the ones that prevailed in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. You had vastly unequal distribution of income and power between the asset-owning class and the asset-less class or the asset-less majority.

    You had, as a result, a lot of rich people having a lot of money to do dangerous financial speculation that was not necessarily productive and, in fact, was destructive often. And all this created a society eventually that came to a sort of a crash during the Great Depression because you had workers who could…. They weren’t paid enough to buy the goods that they were producing. So it eventually led to a kind of demand crisis, and you had the Great Depression and the two world wars, et cetera.

    I’m not saying that this single explanation explains the world wars as well, but just an era of crisis upon crisis. And then, you had a new consensus emerge during the Depression and then solidified post-war. And it was a bipartisan consensus. It was upheld not just by FDR and labor progressives, but also by conservative figures like President Eisenhower, Nixon. You could call it a sort of FDR, Eisenhower, Nixon consensus.

    And the fundamental basis of that, I argue, was the notion that bigness isn’t necessarily bad in our economy. So the idea isn’t necessarily that you have to break every large concentration of power down to size because, in many cases, actually the large companies for all sorts of reasons were socially productive. They’re the ones who can afford to put vast amounts into technological research, for example, or because if you have a ton of small companies competing in certain kinds of industries like railroads, it creates dangerous competition, and you have a whole cycle of bankruptcies and eventually big one or two big ones will merge among them anyway.

    Rather, the better way is to raise up the countervailing power of people who are subject to the coercion of the lard. What does that mean? In situations where you have only two or three sellers in any given market, you could do two things. You can break up the big sellers, but like I said, in many areas, that’s actually not productive. It causes all sorts of social disruption, or you could raise up the power of people on the other side of the market.

    So for example, buyers. So if you have a few companies that manufacture washing machines and they’re the sellers, the department stores of old like Sears would just organically countervail the power of the sellers, and they would pass on the savings to consumers and everyone was win, win, win. Everyone’s happy on every end. But in some markets like the labor market, that process doesn’t happen naturally.

    There are all sorts of barriers having to do with the way that you have many, many, many, many workers and you have only a few buyers of labor power. So those few buyers can really dictate the terms. And workers for all sorts of reasons are afraid to speak up for themselves, to band together. Every incentive is against doing that under normal conditions.

    But if you have government sort of tipping the scales a little bit, then workers, whether that’s by encouraging collective bargaining as we did with the Wagner Act or as we did with the Fair Labor Standards Act, which gave a minimum wage, that gives workers a sense of security and then they can also organize in the workplace and so forth, and they can be a little bit less sort of under the thumb of the employer. And that was the idea of the New Deal.

    The two biggest pieces of the New Deal, in my argument, are the Wagner Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Wagner Act was mainly directed for organized sectors. And the Fair Labor Standards Act mainly addressed workers in the non-organized sectors of the economy. But in either case, it gave them the sort of sense of political and economic security that they could stand up for themselves.

    And so, this really isn’t too different from antitrust. In antitrust, the fear is you have only one seller. So you want to break it up to, you have multiple sellers in this case, you’re giving power to the other side of the market. You’re helping buyers going up against sellers or sellers going up against buyers. And so by the way, this all I credit to John Kenneth Galbraith, who’s this mid-century figure, kind of forgotten, who came up with a theory of countervailing power.

    That seems to me not limited to the conditions of the mid-century, twentieth-century era. That idea is trans-historical. It could apply to our time. And I argue that we should, and all sorts of other salutary benefits flow from that. But the bottom line is what flows from it is just a little bit more of an equal society. Not talking about full socialism. It was not full socialism in the mid-century. Just talking about little bit more equal.

    And what that means is bosses, large companies don’t have so much power and so much money to spend either on dangerous speculation or on their political lobbying, or labor has a little bit more to do lobbying for itself. And so, what you’re aiming for is just a little bit more equitable, so distribution of the social income, and I think all sorts of other problems that are documented in the book would be addressed if we just had this one element.

    Peter Mommsen: I mean since we love having labels, what do you call the solution? I think a term you use one place in the book is political exchange capitalism. It reminded me a lot of sort of Christian social democracy in Europe in the ’60s and ’70s.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Yeah. I don’t dwell too much. I actually use the labels sort of interchangeably. I use social democracy. I use class compromise capitalism. But the one I prefer, and it’s sort of a coinage of the book, is political exchange capitalism. And just the idea is that coercion is inevitable in human affairs. The idea of a market economy in which coercion doesn’t happen is just that. It’s an ideal, and is never going to come about.

    And if you cling to that idea, what you’ll get is an economy that is shot through with coercion, but it’s coercion that can’t be resisted, can’t be challenged because we don’t even recognize it as coercion. So instead, we should try to recognize, look, coercion is inevitable, but the people who are subject to coercion should be given a say over its extent, over its ends, over its means.

    And what you get as a result is the asset-less many coming to give some sort of active ascent to the system as a whole rather than just experiencing it as this thing that happens to them and they tolerate it because they need to earn a paycheck.

    And so, the market exchange becomes subject to political exchange, hence, the name political exchange capitalism. But the idea is not anything new. Like you said, it’s Christian democracy. It’s social democracy. Another term that is used by David Harvey, the Marxist economist, is embedded liberalism. Liberalism meaning market liberalism, if it’s not embedded, it does terraform society in really destructive ways. And we see that today.

    So embedded liberalism was the twentieth-century idea that you take the market, but you embed it within larger political structures and give and take all the things we associate with a good society. We associate a good society with one where you have some say over the things that happen to you. If something bad happens, you have some procedural right to sort of challenge it.

    You can band together with your fellows to demand something that you think requires change, et cetera. Those are the things that we associate with a good politics. And the idea of political exchange capitalism is that the market should also be embedded within these larger structures of give and take of due process of opportunity to challenge, et cetera, et cetera.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So just to bring it down from the sort of very twenty-first century but looking back to the twentieth century and policy-ish and political economy approach, I do think that your use of scripture as the kind of kickoff quote in the book points to … and then even just reflecting on the word “tyranny” that you used to describe this, just does point to – there’s a very, very universal sort of principle that we’re talking about here.

    So tyranny is the use of power to benefit your private good at the expense of the common good or the good of your employee or your debtor. And what the Bible notices a whole lot is this phenomenon of tyranny, that kind of use of power, which ends up being something like bullying by the rich and those who can lend and employ over those who don’t have those means of production, if you want to put it that way.

    So talking about specific twentieth-century developments, the labor movement, et cetera, it might seem very kind of wonky or in the weeds, but it’s a deep – like this is foundational to all political theology, basically. Everything that we want to say about what it means to live together well.

    Peter Mommsen: I mean Saint James is very, very unhappy with people treating their employees bad.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. And this is not a different kind of thing. It can be mystified. Obviously, there wasn’t the kind of corporate consumer capitalism back then. But it’s the same thing. It’s the same phenomenon. And I think your book does a really good job of tracing that phenomenon in ways like helping people recognize, because it can be so invisible, and that’s one of the weird things about it.

    It feels like it’s this kind of miasma of coercion or a miasma of injustice that we can’t put our finger on almost. And the job that the book seems to be doing is really trying to put your finger on it and say, “Look, here it is again. This is how it works.” Was that kind of what you’re aiming to do?

    Sohrab Ahmari: Oh, absolutely. And again, this goes back to your earlier question, idealism versus materialism. Analytically speaking, the idealism in terms of a sense of absolute moral standards is always there, even though the book itself can become … it’s a book about political economy, and there’s a lot of financial reporting, et cetera. But for the reader, I hope, in the background is always the more universal … sorry – it’s the more timeless question of sin.

    What’s being described here is a form of sin, but it’s just that it’s a structural sin or a societal sin that, therefore, requires being addressed in a structural way. That doesn’t mean that the church or the righteous Christian individual doesn’t have a duty to, with the grace of God, try to extricate sin from their individual lives.

    But the Bible is very clear on this point. There are national sins. There are structural sins. And that’s what’s informing this. So it’s funny, I’ve been sending it to … Because I do have a lot of Catholic readers and Catholic outlets that have typically been interested in my work, and I have to preface it in this way. I’m like, “If you flip through it, other than the epigraph, Catholicism or Christianity isn’t necessarily in the foreground of this book, but I would argue it’s everywhere in the background.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, I mean Leo XIII is all through this, right?

    Sohrab Ahmari: He is. And Leo is there explicitly. I now forget. Yes. I have this very good trick, which is the opening of Rerum Novarum, his encyclical on labor and capital. The opening of it could, because it’s written in the nineteenth century, it’s a certain kind of tone, and it’s describing a kind of industrial and moral apocalypse that workers are oppressed.

    There’s rapid development of industry. But there’s also rapid development of inequality and lots of people who are dispossessed, et cetera. And so, in the book, there’s a point, and this is kind of a spoiler, but I quote it. And I’m like, “As Marx wrote in the nineteenth century,” and I quote Rerum Novarum. And then I’m like, “Actually, no. That wasn’t Marx. That was Pope Leo.”

    Peter Mommsen: I really enjoyed that trick. You got me.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You do do that a couple of times. You do that in the opening as well.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Yes.

    Peter Mommsen: No. But I think since this is a Plough podcast and we’re a Christian magazine, it’s worth underlining that what we’re talking about is not just political economy out there, but something that’s actually pretty central to the traditional Christian faith. I was just reading Ambrose of Milan a bunch, and he has this incredibly strongly worded sermon on the story of Naboth, the man whose vineyard was stolen by Ahab, the evil king of Israel.

    And he really then turns it right around, and as Ambrose was known to do, kind of nails the wealthy landowners in his congregation who were just sitting there. And I imagine everyone would’ve been looking at them because as he preached to them about basically enclosure of the commons, grabbing lands that the poor had used to live from in order to expand their estates.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Woe to you who add house to house and field to field because you’re going to end up alone, which is such a bleak and terrifying –

    Sohrab Ahmari: What a powerful, powerful piece of scripture that is. Yeah. You’re going to end up alone. That’s incredible.

    Peter Mommsen: So the privatization of wealth that should somehow be serving the common good, I guess, I mean we’re all agreed here, we’re not going to fight with each other about it, although we might have some disagreement about how to get there, is not just sort of a wonky economist thing. It really is from a Christian perspective, a pretty central concern that we should really be caring about.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Amen.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. I mean, I’m preaching to the choir here, but –

    Susannah Black Roberts: This is such a Ploughish book. This is almost more of Ploughish book than –

    Sohrab Ahmari: I suspect other podcasts and interviews I’ll be on won’t be so full of comity and mutual agreement. Thank you.

    Peter Mommsen: No. And I was recently at a Christian conservative event, Sohrab –

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh yeah. Tell the story.

    Peter Mommsen: … that I will not name, but it was a Christian event dedicated to the veneration of Saint Milton Friedman.

    Sohrab Ahmari: [inaudible].

    Peter Mommsen: And there was a person you mentioned in your book, but not in complete agreement. This idea what you call market utopianism, maybe other people have too, but it struck me from your book as a really good one, this idea that markets somehow magically do away with any form of coercion and economic affairs. They just by themselves infuse it with freedom and all that sense of one person dominating another just kind of goes away because it’s a market. They were very concerned, actually. I think your name was mentioned by younger conservatives who are straying from the Friedman and Hayek path.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Pete, I think the way you described this was they were girding their loins against Sohrab.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. I mean how do respond to that very predictable critique that, basically, markets – Hayek, as you write in your book, was responding to a kind of fear of collectivism that had to do with his own experience of fascism and Bolshevism. And he saw the market as this way for the individual to carve out a realm of freedom. And for decades in this country, most Christian conservatives saw things the same way.

    And they’ve seen this kind of call to more collective, active action, what you call a sort of politics as something that’s threatening to the individual rights and dignity of the person who’s sort of virtuously making their way in the world.

    Sohrab Ahmari: I would just say that there’s many ways to tackle this. But the first one is if you’re a Christian and you want to have some fidelity to the Christian tradition of thinking about society, politics, and political economy, if you think that’s important, you have to recognize that free market libertarianism or especially you would call Hayek and Friedman really neoliberals, and we can talk about the difference between old school libertarianism or classical liberalism and neoliberalism very roughly, and I borrow this from the political theorist, Wendy Brown, classical liberalism is the state should leave the market alone.

    Now, for all sorts of reasons, that was flawed because the state creates the market, as Polanyi taught us. The market’s operations touch all sorts of public issues that we should care about. And therefore, public and private are really far more intertwined than classical liberalism admits. But neoliberalism goes even further.

    Neoliberalism is a tendency represented by Hayek, by Friedman, by the people around what’s called the Mont Pelerin Society, Karl Popper, later on put into practice by figures like Margaret Thatcher, it goes even further, and Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, et cetera. It suggests that not only should the state leave the market alone, but the market should govern the state in some ways, that is that the benchmark for whether or not the state is doing things the right way is set by the market, by sort of market-type standards of always quantifiable outcomes. And if the state provides any service, it’s sort of just one more competitor in the market, and it has to prove itself in market terms.

    And the bleak end result of that is there’s a New York Times story a year ago about hospital chaplains, Christian hospital chaplains – not necessarily Christian – of various faiths, hospital chaplains, people who typically minister to the dead and dying and their family members. And they would find themselves having to show quantifiable gains. They have to show quantifiable results.

    So that’s neoliberalism. It goes even further. It treats all sorts of things that ordinary people think of as public, like firefighting, water – those two are market products, and they should be governed by the rules of the market.

    So that’s the difference between the two. But, OK, so now back to the main question, we just have to recognize if you care about historic Christianity, what it said about how to organize our common lives together is that that runs totally contrary to the whole thrust of historic Christianity.

    Historic Christianity, first of all, adopted classical ideas about what politics is about. And that meant, roughly speaking, politics is about the common good. It’s not about maximizing the individual rights of particular market actors come what may. So there’s a sort of choosing.

    I think the most honest of these people, like the late Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, the more honest of them, like he did, he would just say, “Look, the Pope said some stuff about economics, but the popes didn’t really know, and the economics is up to you to decide individually, and the market really is the best way. Leave it at that.”

    I think if you read The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, more or less, that’s the posture that it takes that, oh, OK, yes, they said some things. But if you’re serious as a young Christian, you want to think about what the church has taught about economics. Well, it’s taught the common good. It’s Rerum Novarum. It’s Catholic social teaching. It’s a recognition that classes are … We don’t live in a classless society, that we live in societies that are riven by class and that the higher owes something to the lower, that there is such a thing as a common good, that we should collectively ensure that workers have certain rights which they can only collectively secure.

    That is the upshot, kids, of Rerum Novarum – that there are certain rights that workers have, rights that adhere to them not as a matter of charity but justice, and that in certain cases they can only secure them collectively. And, therefore, that’s legitimate. That’s why the church has historically supported labor unionism.

    It’s why someone like the late Benedict XVI said, “Social democracy is attuned with Christian social teaching, and has produced a great flowering of human flourishing, et cetera.” I’m only slightly paraphrasing.

    So the point is that the tradition that you honor is not straightforwardly a Milton, Hayek tradition. So that’s my initial answer is that’s not what…. And Hayek is very interesting. Hayek, on the one hand, says this kind of individualism that he recommends goes back to the very origins of the West, I guess like classical and biblical thought, and then at the same time says, “Thank God the modern sort of enlightenment liberal era came around because we could finally be free,” but you can’t say both things. Is this idea of this kind of individualism embedded at the origins of the west, or is it a new thing that we … Is it a gift of capitalism and modernity? You can’t hold both of those without violating the law of non-contradiction.

    Susannah Black Roberts: But they did their best.

    Peter Mommsen: The stream of escaping human community and the need to negotiate.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. Well, man, there’s so many rabbit trails that are in my mind right now, and one of them is like Francis Bacon and the metrification of society, but I think we probably shouldn’t go there.

    Peter Mommsen: We should probably get to our closing questions, Susannah because otherwise –

    Susannah Black Roberts: We should, yeah. Yeah. OK. Hang on. Yeah. So I guess there was part of Pete and I kind of thinking you’re going to get some wild responses, and I bet your book tour is going to be basically bananas in various ways. And we almost would like to hear the stories after it. But I also bet that you have had so far some pretty interesting both pushbacks and have found yourself with some pretty interesting bedfellows in agreement. So what have been the kind of wildest responses and agreements that you’ve had in writing this book and reporting it, et cetera?

    Sohrab Ahmari: So to be honest, and this is very auspicious. I’m delighted because as I mentioned at the beginning, this is the first interview whatsoever that I’ve done about this book period. First –

    Susannah Black Roberts: Really?

    Sohrab Ahmari: Yes. I haven’t done any interview. This is the very first one because you were so quick to say, “let’s schedule it.” A lot of people said, “Wait. Let’s talk in July, because the book comes out in August.” So I’m dating the podcast right now. We’re recording here in May. The book won’t be out for another three months. So it’s a little bit hard to answer that, but I will say, yeah, I’ve definitely had … I’ve presented pieces of the book in Catholic universities, plural. And I’ve had a lot of young people say, “Well, I’ve read Thomas Sowell, and he says that minimum wages are really bad for workers.”

    My answer has been, “Well, why is it that working-class people, whenever they’ve been able to fight politically, they fought for minimum wages?” You really think they don’t know what is best for them?” It’s a very simple answer.

    Because free market theory is, in theory, again, prepared to have…. There’s this reductio ad absurdum of letting wages fall to nothing so that everyone can find the job that they can optimally do. And so, you have people working for nothing, making products that are worth nothing.

    This is a Galbraithian joke about the reductio ad absurdum of libertarianism is workers being paid nothing to make things that are sold for nothing. And that’s not how society works. In reality, the last time we had drastically low wages, it led to a demand crisis and a Great Depression.

    And it’s sad. I guess the reason I’m mentioning this as a reaction is that in a Catholic university, the first thing a young person raises his hand to object to is like do we really need minimum wages which is…. But on the other hand, I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve written the only book that is blurbed by both Slavoj Zizek and Fredrik deBoer on one hand, and on the other hand, senators Hawley and Rubio. I don’t think there will be another book that cast of characters is going to collectively blurb. And, yeah, I do look forward to some definite, definite pushback. I mean, it’s coming.

    Susannah Black Roberts:

    Well, we’ll catch back up with you and get some anecdotes. Sohrab, thank you so much. We have probably a whole other page worth of questions that I wanted to ask in weird tangents, but we probably don’t have time for them. Thank you so much for coming on, and thank you for your time. I feel like I want to end with reading the goose poem. Do you know the goose poem?

    Sohrab Ahmari: No.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m going to read the goose poem to you, and it’s going to become your favorite poem.

    The law locks up the man or woman who steals the goose off the common,
    but leaves the greater villain loose who steals the common from the goose.
    The law demands that we atone when we take things that we do not own,
    but leaves the lords and ladies fine, who takes the things are yours and mine.
    The poor and wretched don’t escape if they conspire the law to break.
    This must be so but they endure, those who conspire to make the law.
    The law locks up the man or woman who steals the goose from off the common –
    And geese will still a common lack till they go and steal it back.

    I think it was 1600s Leveler English radical broadside poem. And I will send it to you.

    Sohrab Ahmari: I’d appreciate it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: All right. Yeah. I feel like that’s probably it.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Very kind. Thank you for doing that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thank you so much, Sohrab. This was a great time, and the book is fantastic. And I feel like it’s about to break people’s brains in a good way. So I look forward to seeing what happens.

    Sohrab Ahmari: In sha’Allah. OK. Thank you, guys. Really appreciate it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Contributed By SohrabAhmari Sohrab Ahmari

    Sohrab Ahmari is a founder and editor of Compact, and a contributing editor for The American Conservative.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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